Mrs. Coopworth and the Small Ruminants Club

Oct. 26 2017

Last Sunday, by prearrangement, at 8:30, we were visited by twelve members of the Small Ruminants Club of the Veterinary School of Kansas State University.

Our stated and agreed intention was to review the health of our flock of Border Leicesters, primarily by exterminating their parasites, so that they could enter a new, clean pasture in good condition. Yes, fresh woods and pastures new, and while it once was known as the cow college, Kansas State is well beyond that, these days, and while not all undergraduates might recognize Lycidas, the vet students have a firm grasp of what needs doing to keep a pasture—and a flock of sheep—clean.

We invite the club when we have a specific day and specific tasks. Inevitably those who come are first and second year students, immersed in the classroom under neon lights. They are profoundly ready for—and enthusiastic about—handling real animals. We tell them what needs to be done and how to do it, which involves pulling back the sheep’s eyelid to examine the sclera and then evaluating its color, and then, maybe, injecting the creature or drenching it, through its mouth. Hands on stuff. We state unequivocally that we do not give grades (they smile) and that it is up to them to organize themselves. They do.

By the time this photograph was taken, the sheep had been worked, backgrounds exchanged, and cookies had been consumed. Two members had left, and we had solicited a return visit sometime in November.

You should conclude that “small” refers to the size of the animal, not to the size of the club and “small” has nothing to do with the spirit with which these students approach their tasks.

Now, you should recall that our flock is composed, largely, of Border Leicesters, a breed which began in the 1760s with line breeding, then a fairly forgotten concept. I think the breed’s characteristics were chosen by shearers, because there is no wool to be shorn from the head, and not much from the legs. The wool itself has a heavy yield, about 70% when cleaned, and an average ewe might produce nine pounds of it in a year, maybe ten inches long. And as a breed, they do not require grain, and they don’t breed early, so their lambs tend to be born in warmer months. We think they’re just right for our grassy part of the Flint Hills and our commitment to carpets.

But several years ago, we brought home two Coopworth ewes from our friends in Oregon, one a cute black creature, the other white. Coopworths, as a breed, were developed in New Zealand, by breeding Border Leicesters with Romneys, a coarse wool breed that originated in Romney Marsh—in the southeast of England—and accordingly seemed to be little affected by foot rot. A Romney is more squarely cut than a Border Leicester, more heavily boned, and they produce more lambs at a time, perhaps because their native land was not as arduous as northern England.

All of which means that they eat more.

Especially Mrs. Coopworth. And she goes and gets it when it is not offered. Here you see her, by herself, grazing away, while two non-Coopworths are observing her through a fence. Mrs. Coopworth has managed to push her way through a baling wire twist securing a gate, and in doing so, prevented the Border Leicesters from coming along with her. Such cheek.

Mind you, we dote on our breed, but if we were obliged to offer one of our flock to play the role of a queen, particularly a dowager queen, it would be Mrs. C.

At the same time, alas, we think she does not demonstrate the qualities apparent in the membership of the Small Ruminants Club.

Copyright Jerry Wigglesworth, October 2017